Book reviews: December 2015
Crocodile Prize Anthology 2015, Eds Philip Fitzpatrick & Keith Jackson
Stone Age Moon
by James O Hunter
Description: The 1960s era, one of development preparing the Territory of Papua New Guinea for nationhood, is the main period covered. The author worked there then, on outlying river and coastal stations in the Sepik District and the Southern Highlands District as an Australian Government Patrol Officer and Assistant District Commissioner.
Papua New Guinea was probably sighted by European navigators long before Europeans landed on the shores of Australia. Yet, it was not until 1975 that Papua New Guinea gained independence, one of the last of the colonies to do so.
In the late nineteenth century Germany established settlements in New Guinea. Britain took possession of Papua.
In 1906, the newly independent Australia took over the administration of Papua as a Territory of Australia. After World War I, Australia was given a mandate from the League of Nations to govern New Guinea. Both territories of Papua and New Guinea were now the responsibility of Australia.
During World War II, Papua New Guinea suffered widespread destruction. From Wewak to Kokoda to Milne Bay and to the islands, European settlements and native villages were devastated. About 15,000 Australians were killed or wounded in the fighting against the Japanese. The approximate number of natives killed or injured as a result of the conflict remains unknown. To this day, the conflict of World War II is commemorated throughout Papua New Guinea.
In 1946, New Guinea became a Trust Territory of the United Nations to be administered by Australia and, in 1949, the Australian Parliament passed legislation joining Papua and New Guinea as a unified Territory in one legislative, judicial and administrative authority under the Australian Government.
From 1949 until 1974, the Australian Department of Territories employed hundreds of adventurous young Australians as Patrol Officers. Almost all had just completed their secondary education to matriculation level and they were all men. They were given at least one year’s basic training at the Australian School of Pacific Administration in Sydney and then deployed throughout Papua New Guinea. Their duties would include administrator, magistrate, policeman, medical worker, teacher and explorer.
Most joined out of a sense of idealism and adventure. They were confident in their mission as leaders and unafraid to carry out their responsibilities. The Patrol Officers were told they could expect lifetime careers.
This is the story of one of those Patrol Officers, Jim Hunter. It is a very personal account not only of the duties assigned to him by the Australian Government but, above all, of the way he managed his authority as the ‘Government’ among tens of thousands of natives in his charge.
The young Jim Hunter was fortunate to have served in the Sepik District, an area notably rich in cultural tradition. For the young ‘Kiap’ Jim Hunter, his first sighting of the Sepik River Region and the Highlands Region must have been wondrous.
Not long after his arrival at Ambunti on the Sepik River, Jim was asked to investigate a complaint made to the Administration by one of the Christian Missions in the area. The Mission was concerned that young Sepik men were being lured away from the Mission back to their village to participate in traditional ‘initiation ceremonies’. The Mission complained that these initiation practices would damage “young prospective Christians.”
His insightful understanding of initiation ceremonies and his decision not to condemn these practices as “wicked” and “disruptive” mark Jim as an astute student of social anthropology. Jim, the ‘Government’ man, would allow the Sepik people time to adjust to the irresistible encroachment of western religion and standards of behaviour. His actions would not go unnoticed by native leaders and would strengthen the trust between the Administration and the Sepik people.
Most of Jim’s time at Ambunti was involved in ensuring that Government services operated smoothly. Jim complains in a letter to his fiancée of going to the “office” to “strangle self slowly in red tape”. But it is apparent from his reports and correspondence that he found the experience of government exhilarating and fulfilling, notwithstanding the challenges of bringing peace and order to the people in the face of personal danger, risk to health and loneliness.
The news of Jim’s ‘first contact’ patrol south of Ambunti in late 1962 received wide newspaper coverage not only in Papua New Guinea but also in Australia and overseas. Jim had made a peaceful first contact with more 100 ‘Stone Age’ people known as “G’Hom”. A later patrol by Jim in early 1963 located other clans and groups previously not contacted. Details of his report of this expedition were eagerly sought by the media. Newspapers covered the story extensively.
Jim’s reports of both patrols were praised by his superiors for his good work. The Director of his Department, the legendary J.K. McCarthy, recorded “Mr Hunter appears to have handled his initial contact with the people in a most competent manner.” Jim had established himself as an energetic and self-sufficient Patrol Officer.
At the end of January 1964, Jim was posted to Tari, headquarters of the Tari sub-District in the western Southern Highlands, an area not too remote from the West Irian (Indonesian) Border. This was also a time of tension between Australia and Indonesia which demanded watchful concern of the border between Papua New Guinea and West Irian.
In late 1966, he led an intensive investigation of the massacre of 10 villagers at Pumi (near Mendi). During the investigation, he survived an attack on his life without resorting to firearms and was able to successfully complete the investigation. Jim’s competence and admirable leadership abilities in bringing this crisis to a successful conclusion were acknowledged by thousands of natives gathered at Mendi when he returned with his prisoners. His superiors once again commended him on a job well done.
The years spent by Jim in the Southern Highlands were filled with unending administrative duties but relieved by two extremely important exploratory Patrols.
Jim’s Report of his patrol into the Pogaia–Strickland River region in April 1968 and his contact with new people of the Pagaia linguistic group was full of invaluable information for the Administration.
Observations range from the health of the local inhabitants, their subsistence methods and, curiously, their subdued acceptance of the coming of the Government. Photographs taken of these ‘Stone Age’ people during this Patrol offer an invaluable and unique portrait of ‘first contact’ peoples. These photographs were prized by the Administration. For this Report and his Report of his subsequent Patrol of the Strickland River region in late 1969, Jim was again singled out for praise from the highest levels in the Administration. He had established his reputation with his superiors as a competent and reliable explorer of some of the remaining wild areas of Papua New Guinea.
By the end of 1968, Jim Hunter was appointed to the senior position of Assistant District Commissioner in charge of the vast Koroba sub-District.
In 1969, I visited Tari for the sittings of the Supreme Court. On a non-sitting day, members of the Supreme Court party travelled from Tari to remote Koroba by four-wheel drive. Not far from Koroba sub-District Headquarters, I was astonished to see an enormous new all-weather airstrip.
Jim proudly escorted me to the airstrip and told me it had been made possible by the Koroba Local Government Council and built with stick and spade by the local people using crushed stone. Giant RAAF Hercules aircraft were able to use the airstrip. I have no doubt that it was Jim’s drive and leadership that persuaded to Local Council to support this massive ‘self-help’ project. It was completed without modern technical assistance. It was an extraordinary achievement.
Stone Age Moon is a very personal memoir of Jim’s achievements as an administrator and explorer during the 10 years he worked as a Patrol Officer or ‘Kiap’ in the wilds of Papua New Guinea.
Although Patrol Officers were few in number and were given limited resources, they established the foundations of a State. Over a relatively short period of time, it was the ’Kiap’ who, day by day, performed the administrative tasks of bringing good government to a ‘Stone Age’ people. So successful were they in bringing a primitive people to the international table of nations, that Papua New Guinea is almost unique among former colonies world-wide in achieving a peaceful transition to democracy, peaceful transfers of parliamentary power, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, an independent judiciary and a general acceptance by the population in the institutions of western democracy.
The wonder of Papua New Guinea was recognized by Major Herschel W. Carney of the U.S. Army Air Force who landed at Mt Hagen from Hollandia in July 1945. He had this to say:
Thirty years after Major Carney wrote these words, Papua New Guinea was admitted as a Member State of the United Nations on 10 October 1975.
In 2011, the estimated literacy rate in Papua New Guinea was 62.4% with a population of just over 7 million people. I hope many Papua New Guineans will read Stone Age Moon as it is an authentic history of an Australian idealist without illusions who spent the most vigorous years of his life on their behalf. Eamon Lindsay
Myth + magic: art of the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea by Crispin Howarth
Papua New Guinea’s mighty Sepik River has been home to many communities for over a thousand years and yet how much do we, as outsiders, as Australians with our long history of involvement with PNG, really know and understand the culture and visual arts of this region?
Myth + magic: art of the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea provides a rare opportunity to encounter masterpieces from the Sepik, works of art that speak of a time and place where spirits and ancestors were integral to daily life.
This publication celebrates the unique cultures of a country that is now celebrating its 40th anniversary of independence. The Sepik River is home to an array of art-producing communities distinguished for their visual arts, including sculptures of supernatural beings, masks and other fascinating objects that beguile and bewilder all who encounter them.
Myth + magic presents the greatest examples of Sepik River art held in the southern hemisphere. It provides the best possible platform to acknowledge what these objects truly are—markers of culture, beyond their ethnographical worthiness, and powerful works of world art.
The Volcano’s Wife: The Great Untold Story by Amalia Cowley and Pamela Virtue
This absorbing and heart-felt story will appeal to anyone with a soul and a love for Papua New Guinea and its people. It has some harrowing parts—as you might expect from a book about the great human tragedy of the disaster at Mount Lamington volcano on Sunday 21 January 1951—including stories of the survivors who were left with life-long grieving if not psychological trauma. But, make no mistake, the human spirit shines through and your own spirits will lift in reading The Volcano’s Wife through to its conclusion.
Pamela Virtue, one of the authors, was just 12 years old when a catastrophic and unexpected ‘lateral blast’ from near the top of Lamington volcano swept northwards down over her family’s home at Higaturu, the Australian Administration’s headquarters in the Northern District (now Oro Province) of Papua. The ‘blast’ killed both her father, Cecil Cowley, the Australian District Commissioner at Higaturu, and her 16-year-old brother, Erl. They were just two of the thousands of people who perished in what some people (but not the authors of this book) have called ‘Australia’s greatest natural disaster’: a debateable moniker if ever there was one, given that the great majority of the victims were Melanesian Papuans, and Australia at the time was a governing colonial power of the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea, later to become the Independent State of Papua New Guinea.
Pamela and her mother, Amalia Cowley, survived because on the Saturday night before the eruption they left Higaturu to stay with friends, the Stevens, just outside the area that would be totally devastated by the volcanic blast the following morning. And mother and daughter only just survived the eruption too, as testified by this description on pages 95-96:
Then, amazingly, the advancing hot ash cloud stopped and, almost miraculously, seemed to reverse its direction of flow! Amalia, Pamela and the other terrified, trapped people were saved from death by a whisker. Mrs Stevens later said ‘It seemed as though the hand of God had turned the might of the satanic forces away from us’. The geophysics of such laterally moving volcanic clouds or flows, however, is now fairly well known. These apparently relentless, hot, ground-hugging clouds eventually lose their energy and forward momentum and can then ‘collapse’ and stop quite suddenly. Next, the buoyant hot volcanic gases and the heated expanded air in the remains of the collapsed flow rise quickly into the air and draw in the ash from below, sucking back what was previously the advancing front of the flow.
The words quoted above were written by Amalia Cowley. Pamela extracted them from her mothers’ unpublished papers. This is just some of Amalia’s material that Pamela has skillfully interwoven into her own well-paced narrative of events between 1900 (when Amalia’s Italian family first came to Australia) and the present. Pamela’s deep respect and love for her mother are enduring themes of the narrative. She always refers to Amalia as Mother whereas Cecil, who was equally loved, is just called Dad!Pamela’s mother, who died in 1998, is indeed given first place in the Cowley and Virtue order of authorship on the front cover of The Volcano’s Wife.
The intensity of the disaster trauma experienced by Pamela in 1951 meant that 52 years were to pass before she could brace herself to return, with her husband Gerry in support, to the killer mountain south of present-day Popondetta, and thus face the childhood memories and nightmares that had haunted her well into adult life. But the experience of returning in 2003, and again in 2004, and accepting the warmth and understanding of the elderly Papuan survivors—who had their own life-long traumas to deal with and still remembered her as the daughter of the well-respected District Commissioner—was cathartic. Ceremonies and shared weeping started the healing of what the reader will soon recognise had been a troubled soul.
The local Papuans gave Pamela the name of Ruja during her visit in 2003. ‘Mount Lamington’ is the European name for the volcano, but the mountain in local Orokaivan culture is associated with the male-ancestor figure or spirit known as Sumbiripa who lives at its summit together with his wife, Ruja. The reader may therefore conclude that Pamela Virtue is the ‘volcano’s wife’ in this book. But there remains some ambiguity about this when you see the design of the front cover. The title of the book, The Volcano’s Wife, overlaps with a wonderful portrait of Amalia as a young woman, giving the strong visual impression that she, rather than her daughter Pamela, could be identified as Ruja. The shared experience of the 1951 disaster and the loss of Cecil and Erl make the closeness of mother and daughter seem indivisible in this book, so the ambiguity is totally understandable and acceptable.
This, then, is an outline of a book that any serious reader of Una Voce cannot afford to miss. Other people, such as Marjorie Kleckham and ex-kiap Des Martin, have given their own valuable accounts of the Lamington tragedy in Una Voce. Pamela Virtue and Amalia Cowley’s book adds marvellously to this still growing body of literature dealing with memories of the Lamington disaster and its aftermath. Read it and, like me, restore your faith in the power of human recovery.
Pamela describes how she swam in the sea before leaving Oro Province at the end of her 2004 visit:
Wally Johnson, Volcanologist
Crocodile Prize Anthology 2015, Eds Philip Fitzpatrick & Keith Jackson
PNGAA sponsors the Crocodile Prize publishing program, publishing the annual anthology of the best PNG writing.
For the names and profiles of the winners and links to their winning entries together with the judges’ comments go to PNG Attitude.